Self Improvement Without Shame

This is not the first time I’ve written about people pleasing. Or shame. I’m not shocked that I’ve been thinking about these topics again lately, because people-pleasing, or the tendency to fabricate your behavior to ensure acceptance from others, is something that’s been deeply ingrained. And shame is always lurking behind.

It’s hard to let go of the things that keep us feeling safe and secure. For the longest time, confrontation has felt like one of the scariest and most triggering things in the world to me. It’s been manifested to the point that if someone asks me my opinion about something completely innocuous, such as where I want to eat, and I can’t predict a response they’d approve of, I start to panic. My mind goes blank and my heart rate rises and shame starts talking at me like: “you’re crazy, it’s not a big deal, but also why can’t you just say the right thing?” The urge to avoid even the slightest conflict is that strong. My whole mind and body get on board.

Sigh.

As my healing journey has progressed, I’ve learned a number of things. I’ve learned that shame is something I must reject in order to heal. Reject, heal, annihilate, whatever you want to call it, shame is something that needs to go. Believing that something is wrong with me is a learned trait from the abuse I endured, and getting rid of it is critical to my mental well-being. As I learn more and more ways to cope with shame and stop identifying with its messages, I’m more able to observe ways that shame still clings to me. One major way is, you guessed it, by people pleasing. As much as I am dedicated to speaking my truth, it’s easier to do so on the internet, where most people don’t know me or expect me to be a certain way. It’s harder in real life, where I have to get past my learned instinct to avoid conflict at all costs, because in the past it signaled ridicule and pain. This instinct to avoid conflict is so strong, it keeps me from sharing parts of myself with those closest to me. It keeps me from speaking up about things I care about. It keeps me from being an advocate. And it keeps the shame alive.

As I move forward in my quest to heal and release the shame that is my trauma manifesting, I am learning to accept myself fully: including the parts of me that are acting out from a place of fear. After years of living fully immersed in shame, self-blame, and hatred, just barely keeping my head above water, I have finally come to a place of acceptance for myself in many ways. It’s become comfortable to accept my life experiences, even the ones that I wouldn’t ever repeat. I accept the parts of me that need special care, like my sensitive digestion and startle response. I accept my quirks and interests and general personality. But the hardest thing to learn to accept is the parts of me that are still afraid, the parts. that remember the pain of abuse intimately. The parts that react compulsively against my higher cognition. The parts that make me feel like a hypocrite as I preach self-acceptance while hiding my truth from anyone close to me who might disapprove.

I’ve learned that, for me at least, it’s not possible to make a lasting positive change from a place of shame. That only self compassion can incite healing. So as I am called to release the part of me that seeks worth, safety, and validation from others by conforming to what I believe they want from me, I vow to do so gently. I vow to not beat myself up over the many times I know I’ll need to practice the skill of disagreement. I vow to not shame myself for the difficulty it takes me to do something that is so easy for others. I vow to honor my experience by letting myself feel how I feel and not making my feelings into a character flaw. I vow to feel the fear and do it anyway. I vow to stand by myself when I feel overwhelmed. I’ve made it to a point in my recovery where I’m able to tolerate more uncomfortable emotions than I have in many years. I’m slowly letting the walls come down that protect my heart. It’s a practice. I’ve done the work to ensure my physical safety and the healing to get myself to actually feel safe most of the time. From this place of embodied presence, I know it is possible to feel difficult feelings and not be destroyed by them.

As my nervous system clings to regulation through a calm sea of agreeableness, I remind myself that I am safe outside of my ability to placate others. I am free to be myself and I trust I will be loved as I am. I have found a place within of deep belonging, and know I can take refuge there when my reality clashes with another person’s. Deep within I know I am more than my brain chemistry and my trauma conditioning. I am more than my ability to please people. As I move forward in this new decade, this healing journey, this life, I place my intention on remembering these pieces of wisdom and being gentle with myself as I work on letting go of what no longer serves me. It doesn’t serve me to be inauthentic in order to be loved, and it doesn’t serve me to drown in shame when I struggle to express myself. It serves me to be compassionate, to accept myself as I make the leap into radical truth telling, no matter how many times I fall.

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